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Voyage of Discovery (Part Three)

The application of elbowroom and abstraction in VR.

In contrast to the passive storytelling frame of traditional screen media, immersive media facilitates an (inter)active storytelling paradigm: the participant enters the narrative, determines her own path through it, and perhaps even influences it. When constructing active immersive narratives, it is therefore crucial to leave elbowroom for the participant in the form of narrative rest areas. Not everything must be spelled out. The VR participant needs her space, literally and figuratively.

Obviously, a coherent system of story cues is necessary for context and orientation, but these cues should nudge the participant in the desired direction rather than dictate each step of the way. The VR designer ideally constructs a choice architecture that influences without coercion: the VR participant organically explores the virtual space and navigates key anchor points. When skillfully devised and gamely engaged, the immersive media designer and the immersive media participant become active partners who collaborate on the final narrative: a dynamic experience that assumes different meaning with each user and with each iteration.

Although the elbowroom recommendation is most often associated with narrative, it may also be applied to setting and even to characters. It is unnecessary and uninteresting to overwhelm VR participants with a deluge of detailed realism. Human beings have an innate tendency towards anthropomorphism: the attribution of human traits, intentions and feelings to non-human and inanimate entities. Anthropomorphism has primal artistic and storytelling roots that persist to this day: most cultures have fables featuring anthropomorphized animals as characters, and Walt Disney built a modern entertainment empire on the backs of anthropomorphic creatures.

Anthropomorphism extends well beyond our fellow mammals, feathered friends and sea creatures into the realm of the abstract. In 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel co-authored "An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior", now a classic work of social psychology, which launched the study of intention perception (the ability to guess intentions by observing behavior). Heider & Simmel's research demonstrated that, when presented with configurations of abstract shapes, people are inclined to assign intentions and even emotions to these - a phenomenon which seemingly underscores the human storytelling instinct.

In the course of their study, Heider & Simmel created an abstract animation: a tableau between a large triangle, a smaller triangle and a circle. People who were shown the animation and then queried on the content responded with creative narratives that anthropomorphically assigned human intentions, actions and emotions to the moving objects. Only one person in the original study recounted the animation in geometric terms.

People generally described a connected story with common features: the large triangle occupies a "house," the larger triangle “chases” the smaller triangle and the circle, the triangles “fight,” the larger triangle “destroys the house” in frustration, etc. People in the study furthermore inferred roles and motivations including: the smaller triangle is the plucky hero, the circle is his girlfriend, the large triangle is the aggressive villain, and so on.

What Heider & Simmel discovered back in 1944 is that most people who watched this simple abstract film of animated shapes were quick to see a story. In those simple shapes, viewers empathetically recognized characters with emotions, motivations, and purpose. The T's don't need to be crossed, and the I's don't need to be dotted in order to provide a coherent, compelling story experience.

The lesson for those of us working in 2018 is that elbowroom and abstraction can facilitate agency and engagement in immersive media.

Kevin Geiger's picture

Kevin is the author of AWN's Reality Bites blog, his musings on the art, technology and business of immersive media (AR, VR, MR) and AI. You can find Kevin's website at and he can be reached at